Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:09 pm on 23rd March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 6:09 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a real pleasure to respond to today’s debate, which has in many ways shown this virtual House at its best, united by cross-party consensus on the importance of science and support for our scientists. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken so constructively on both sides, even if I cannot do justice to every contribution. As the shadow Secretary of State emphasised, it is vital that we get the Advanced Research and Invention Agency right. As many hon. Members have observed, the UK has a proud tradition in science, engineering, innovation, research and development; it is renowned across the world. The Secretary of State mentioned the discovery of penicillin. Alan Mak referred to the spinning Jenny and Stephenson’s Rocket. As a chartered engineer from Newcastle, I particularly appreciated the last example, and I would add to it the steam turbine, invented on the Tyne by Parsons. It made cheap and plentiful electricity possible, revolutionised marine transport and powered our Navy.

Again and again, UK science has pushed back the boundaries of knowledge, shrinking the vast expanses of ignorance which, as the pandemic has shown, may threaten humanity’s very existence. And science is a key economic driver. Our university research base alone contributes £95 billion to the economy, supporting nearly 1 million jobs in science institutes, charities and businesses of all sizes. Research by Oxford Economics commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found that each £1 of public research and development stimulates between £1.96 and £2.34 of private research and development in the long run, and together they help address the key challenges facing humanity, from climate change to inequality, from pandemics to productivity. As my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband said, Labour recognises that the UK needs new mechanisms to support high-risk/high-reward research. As such, ARIA is a step in the right direction. The United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency programme, which the Secretary of State cites many times in his statement of policy intent, has helped give us inventions from the internet to Siri, from cyborg insects to GPS technology.

Of course we want Britain to back similar high-risk/high-reward research that unlocks the full potential of our scientific creativity. But there are concerns—concerns shared across the House. Many Members highlighted the lack of direction for ARIA. The Secretary of State claimed that the Bill equips ARIA with the “tools and freedoms that it needs”. By implication, then, it doesn’t need a mission. But the renowned economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato has said:

“ARIA should be oriented around societal challenges with broad buy-in that define the 21st century and can just as effectively stimulate cross-disciplinary innovation, for example climate change”.

The Institute of Physics has said that a clear mission is “essential” and the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee raised concerns about ARIA’s lack of “focus and purpose”. Setting a mission would bring together business, Government and the wider public in support of ARIA. This Bill seems more designed to set it adrift.

We heard from Government Members best described as the disciples of Dominic Cummings. The former adviser to the Prime Minister said that the UK was in need of a blue skies thinking agency. But can I gently suggest that we should not test Mr Cummings’ ideological eyesight by driving to a scientific Bishop Auckland without a credible mission—not with public money at least. On the “Today” programme this morning, the Secretary of State for Health said that the vaccine programme

“will be a model of how Governments can make things happen and move fast and deliver for their population”.

But not, it would seem, when it comes to scientific research. The vaccine programme definitely had a mission.

Leadership in any organisation is critical, but ARIA seems entirely dependent on its CEO and chair, with little external accountability or ministerial direction. Hon. Members, including the hon. Members for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), highlighted some of the concerns this raises, including the potential for crony and vanity projects. I would like to add two points. First, however great the initial CEO and chair are, they will move on. What then? Secondly, science is a collective endeavour— perhaps one of the greatest collective endeavours—yet the Government seem to believe that by recruiting one or two star performers, ARIA can transform our science landscape. We need to build an institution that furthers our societal aims for decades to come.

The Secretary of State tried to present freedom of information as an obstacle to the UK being a science superpower, but he also said that ARIA was inspired by DARPA in the US, which is subject to freedom of information. We are concerned that this Government are driven more by an ideological disdain for scrutiny than by a desire to further UK science. The Campaign for Freedom of Information shares our concerns, fearing that without public accountability, ARIA will lack the weighty public interest needed to support its mission.

I also want to add a word of warning here, echoing the words of many Members today including the Chair of the Select Committee, Greg Clark, and the chair of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, Stephen Metcalfe. Let us not kid ourselves: high risk means failure. There will be failures—high-profile, expensive failures with public money. Is the CEO expected to weather that storm without ministerial accountability? Is it the Government’s intention to be able to throw ARIA to the wolves and keep Ministers safe?

The creation of ARIA must not serve as a distraction from the UK’s wider research and development challenges. My hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) both emphasised the lack of certainty and ambition on science funding now, and they both represent great science communities. The Government are reportedly on course to miss their target of spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027 following cuts to overseas research, which the vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, Chris Day, tells me may lead to immediate redundancies in the north-east. Labour is committed to raising the proportion of GDP spent on R&D to 3%, and for this Government to fail to reach their target of 2.4% would be shocking indeed.

Further, and even more astonishingly, just two weeks before the new financial year, the scientific community still does not know what funding is to be allocated for science. Just this morning, the Secretary of State did not deny the prospect of £1 billion-worth of cuts to next year’s science budget. He must stand up for science in his negotiations with the Treasury. I am sure I am not the only one to be somewhat dismayed by the languid tone, during his short opening remarks, in which he said that discussions were ongoing.

The Government have also failed to support medical research charities. They have failed to support early career researchers and doctoral students during the pandemic. The Government like to talk up research, but their actions do not match their words. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North asked how ARIA would work with existing bodies, given the lack of clarity on its mission. I am concerned that it may end up competing for existing funding rather than leveraging in new funds. That is a criticism levelled against some catapults.

It is also interesting that the worked example in the statement of policy intent from the Secretary of State uses—I think that is the most appropriate term—a female programme manager. Women are hugely under-represented in science research. They make up just 15% of the principal investigators applying for Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grants, for example. I am sure the Minister would agree that this lack of representation holds science back, and I hope she will tell us how ARIA will help to address that and the other fundamental disparities in science.

Labour wants ARIA to be a success, and we support its creation. We believe that science is an engine of progress and that ARIA can accelerate it, but we also believe that it must have a clear mission to address our great societal challenges and that it must be accountable. It is not as if there is a lack of challenges for it to address. Indeed, they are many, but without direction from the Government, the agency risks losing its way. We are determined to amend the Bill to empower ARIA to succeed, and I look forward to working with Members across the House to achieve that.